Roger Casement (1864 - 1916)

Diplomat, Humanitarian, Irish Nationalist, Poet and Patriot

Roger Casement, the youngest of four children, was born to Roger Casement and Anne Casement (née Jephson) on Sept.1, 1864 in Sandycove, Co. Dublin. 

Roger father was a British army officer and a member of the Church of Ireland. His mother, who was born into the Catholic faith, converted to Protestantism in order to marry his father. Her conversion to Protestantism was not a guanine act of faith as she secretly continued to attend Mass and celebrate the sacraments.

When Casement was four years old his mother took him and his siblings to visit her sister in Liverpool. During that visit she had him secretly baptized into the Catholic faith in nearby Rhyl in north Wales.  Too young to remember or attach any significance to his baptism he considered himself a Protestant and lived his life accordingly.

After his mother died in 1873 his father sent the children to Magherintemple House, the seat of the Casement family, near Ballycastle in Co. Antrim to be cared for by their great-uncle John Casement and his wife. He, himself, went to live in Ballymena where he brooded over the loss of his wife’s until his own death in 1877.

After a short stay at Magherintemple House Casement was sent to the Ballymena Academy, a Church of Ireland Diocesan Free School, one of the three Diocesan Free Schools remaining in the country.  In 1878 attendance at the school consisted of six boarders and five day pupils. Casement was one of the boarders.  He was an average student except for languages and ancient history, subjects in which he excelled. 

Away from school Casement split his time between his paternal relatives in Magherintemple House and his maternal relatives in Liverpool. He enjoyed staying with his Liverpool relatives, namely his aunt and uncle, Grace and Edward Bannister, who treated and cared for him and his sister as members of their own family.  His two brothers generally stayed at the Casement family estate.

When Casement reached the age of fifteen he left school and emigrated to Liverpool where his uncle, Edward Bannister, found him work as an apprentice at the Elder Dempster Shipping Company whose ships plied the trading routes between Britain and West Africa.  During the four years he spent there he diligently applied himself to his duties and made it his business to learn all he could about the maritime trading business, particularly as it applied to Africa. He spent the last year of his employment as a purser on board one of the company’s ships that made four round trips from Liverpool to West Africa.

In 1884 Casement set sail for the Congo to help its inhabitants adapt European values and customs that would, as he was led to believe, free them from slavery, paganism and barbarity. As he later would learn his youthful exuberance and his embrace of imperialism as a force for good was ill conceived, counterproductive and supportive of colonial exploitation. 

After arriving in Africa he took up employment with the African International Association (AIA), an organization controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium, supposedly to further his humanitarian projects in the area of Central Africa. Unbeknownst to the other entities and individuals involved, including Casement, Leopold real purpose was to take control of the Congo Free State, which he did in 1885.  He considered the Congo Free State his personal fiefdom and treated its inhabitants as indentured slaves. 

During his employment with the AIA, Casement served as a member of the management team that oversaw the construction of a railroad designed to bypass the rapids in the lower Congo River in order to facilitate trade and transportation to the Upper Congo. When the AIA became a totally Belgium enterprise Casement severed his ties with the organization. He remained in the Congo for some time afterwards working as a surveyor for a railroad company, as an explorer and as an assistant in a Baptist missionary station. Between 1889-1890 he spent time in the United States on a lecture tour with fellow explorer and sculptor Herbart Ward.

In 1890 Casement relocated to the British controlled Niger Coast Protectorate (the present day western and eastern regions of Nigeria) where he was employed by the Colonial Office as a surveyor. He also held other posts including that of the acting director-generalship of customs. In all, he spent three years in the Protectorate before being appointed consul by the Foreign Office to the port of Lorenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa (the present-day Maputo Province in Mozambique). His duties there included the protection of British subjects and the promotion of British interests.  He was also responsible for reporting on the evolving political situation in the diamond and gold rich bordering Boer Republics established after the First Boer War in 1883. Although the British lost that war they, nonetheless, continued to engage in an overt campaign of intimidation comprised of military raids and industrial unrest that ultimately led up to a full blown military invasion of the Republics in 1899.  The ensuing “Second Boer War” ended in 1903 in a British victory and the annexation of the Republics.  

From 1898 through 1904 he served as consul to the Portuguese Colony of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, the Cape Colony, the Congo State, and the French Congo Colony.  In 1903 during his service in the Congo State he was ordered to investigate reports of atrocities carried out by King Leopold II agents. His investigation, which took him to remote areas of the Upper Congo, brought him face-to-face with the unimaginable atrocities, including forced labor, mutilation, murder and depopulation, carried out by Leopold’s agents against the indigenous rubber gatherers.  For Casement the inhumanity of the situation was a life changing revelation that exposed the true nature of colonialism.

 In February of 1904 Casement's submitted a very detailed and factual report to the Foreign Office. Despite the fact that the government watered down the report before been published it, nonetheless, forced the Belgium government to take direct control of the Colony from Leopold and institute some reforms.

After completing the Congo assignment he returned to England where he took a leave of absence. By then he had soured on colonialism having witnessed the ill treatment of the indigenous peoples of the African colonies as well as the ill treatment of the Boers by the British conquerors. It was a time of reflection for Casement.

For the following two years he spent a considerable amount of time traveling around Ireland.  He joined the Gaelic League and studied Gaelic, a language he found difficult to master.  His involvement with the League brought him in contact with many of the leading Irish nationalists and republican of that time.  He viewed Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein party’s program, authored by Griffith, as a possible solution to ending Ireland’s forced union with England.  The program called for 1) Irish MPs to withdraw from the parliament in London and 2) engage in a campaign of passive resistance similar to that followed in Hungary that led to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 and the creation of a dual monarchy.

The following response by Casement to a request for a donation from his alma mater, Ballymena Academy, is a indication of how far he had veered from his earlier imperial beliefs:

‘1 am already committed by promise to aid several educational movements in Ireland of a distinctively national character which must have the first claim on my sympathy and support.... I was taught nothing about Ireland in Ballymena School, I don’t think the word was ever mentioned in a single class of the school and all I know of my country I learnt outside the school....As an Irishman, I wish to see this state of things changed and Irish education to be primarily what that of every healthy people is-- designed to build up a country from within, by training its youth to know, love and respect their own land before all other lands.”

In 1906 Casement returned to the Foreign Service. He was sent to Brazil where he served as consul in the Brazilian provinces of Pará and Santos and lastly as consul-general in Rio de Janeiro.  While in Rio de Janeiro he was commissioned by the Foreign Office to investigate the reported abuse of British workers by the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), which was registered in Britain, managed and owned by a British board of directors and stockholders.

What Casement found was not what was alleged by the Foreign Office. After having traveled to the Maynas Province in the Amazon Basin of Peru where the rubber was harvested he witnessed the degrading and inhumane treatment inflicted by PAC managers and overseers upon the indigenous people who harvested the rubber. The savagery Casement witnessed was similar to what he witnessed in the Congo; starvation, severe physical abuse, rape of women and girls, branding and casual murder.

The resultant report prepared by Casement, (i.e. the Putumayo Atrocities) which was published as a parliamentary paper in 1911 garnered him international recognition as a humanitarian.

By the time Casement retired from the British consular service in the summer of 1913 he was a committed Irish nationalist who had soured on the British Empire. He viewed England’s ongoing occupation of Ireland as an unjust enterprise perpetrated to rob Ireland of its natural resources and as a convenient source of manpower to fight its imperial wars. He also believed that England had, over the centuries, engaged in cultural genocide to cement its control over the island of Ireland and its  people.

Casement was a founding member of Irish Volunteers a military organization formed in 1913 to counter the Ulster Volunteers, a unionist militia founded in 1912 to block Home Rule for Ireland. He worked with Eoin MacNeill, who became the organization’s Chief of Staff, in authoring the Volunteer’s manifesto.  He also came to know many of the leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan some of whom would be executed for their role in the 1916 Easter Rising.

In July of 1914 he journeyed to the United States to promote and raise funds for the Volunteers. Though his friendship with Bulmer Hobson, a member of the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, he was able to connect with John Devoy, Joseph McGarrity and other members of Clan na Gael in the United States. Casement role in helping to organize and fund the Howth gun running affair helped him overcome Clan na Gael initial hostility towards him, particularly, for his role in ceding control of the Irish Volunteers to John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.    

In the months that followed Casement worked closely with Devoy and other Clan members to raise funds and procure arms for a Rising in Ireland. After the outbreak of WWII in August 1914, Devoy made contact with a German diplomat, Count Bernstorff, to discuss a deal wherein the Germans would supply the IRB with guns and ammunition to support a revolt in Ireland; a revolt that would help Germany by diverting British troops from the war in Europe. In furtherance of that proposal Casement departed for Germany in November of 1914 to work on a deal with the Germans.

One of his first tasks in Germany was to create an Irish Brigade made up of Irish-born prisoners-of-war captured in the early months of the war. That effort failed because many of the prisoners he approached were from the ranks of the Irish Volunteers whom John Redmond’s had cajoled into believing they were loyal British subjects who owed allegiance to the King, therefore, were duty bound to fight for the British Empire. Other prisoners were wary knowing what happened to an earlier generation of Irish-born soldiers in the British army who joined the Fenians. When exposed they were either shot on sight or spent the rest of their lives being abused in prison.  

In April 1916 Casement procured from the German government a consignment of 20,000 rifles, 10 machine guns and ammunition, a fraction of what he believed was necessary to launch a successful Rising.  The guns and ammunition were loaded aboard the SS Libau, masquerading as the SS Aud, an existing Norwegian vessel.  The Aud set sail from the Baltic port of Lübeck on 9 April 1916, under the Command of Karl Spindler. The vessel, which was bound for the south-west coast of Ireland arrived off the Kerry coast on April 20 1916. Unable to communicate with volunteers on shore, Captain Spindler was left with no option but to abort the mission and return to Lubeck.

The reason why contact with the shore failed was that three of the six volunteers  enroute to Kerry to handle communications were drowned when their car took a wrong turn and ran into the River Laune. The three volunteers who drowned were Con Keating, Donal Sheehan and Charlie Monaghan.  

Shortly after starting the return journey, the ship was intercepted by the British Navy and escorted back to Cobh Harbor. Before reaching Cobh the captain scuttled the ship with preset explosives rather than have it fall into enemy hands.

In the meantime Casement had been put ashore off a German U-Boat on Banna Strand in Kerry on April 21, hoping to rendezvous with the Aud. He was subsequently arrested, taken to England, charged with treason and sentenced to death. Despite appeals for clemency Roger Casement was hanged in Pentonville prison in London on the 3rd. of August, 1916. His body was disposed of, coffinless, in a quicklime pit.

The quicklime, they said, would consume the flesh and leave the white bones—the skeleton—intact, which could then be moved easily.

 His remains were returned to Ireland in 1965 and now rest in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

Contributor:  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

 cemetery AND grave location

Name:        Glasnevin Cemetery                                      PHONE NO.      011 353 1 830-1133

ADDRESS:   Finglas Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 11, Ireland


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